Bruce Whitfield: Theft is wrong, even when you are Zara or Woolworths

Business Insider SA


Imagine for a moment that Laduma Ngxokolo, founder and designer of the MaXhosa by Laduma brand, walked into the Zara store in Sandton City. 

After carefully scoping out the security cameras and seeing that staff are distracted by the two-year-old throwing a tantrum near the tills, he reached out and picked up a pair of socks with a familiar African-inspired design – and quietly slipped them into his pocket. 

As he exited the store, the alarms would go off, triggered by a device secreted into the toe of the geometrically patterned socks. And the security staff, shaken out of their reverie, might frisk him and find a pair of socks bearing the “Zara Man” brand.

You could almost hearing him insisting: “But they are mine!” and being told to mind his manners by a burly security dragging him, still protesting his innocence, to the back of the store to await a police van to take him away and have him charged with shoplifting.

The store would be quite within its rights. Theft is wrong. Theft of any kind. And it should not be tolerated.

Except in this case it is Zara which is being accused of theft, and there’s not much anyone can do about it.

It emerged this week that a design, eerily similar to Ngxokolo’s Khanyisa jersey design – launched recently to great acclaim at an international fashion show – had appeared on a line of socks carried by Zara. The apparent appropriation of the Khanyisa design, without his permission, has caused public outrage, and forced the chain to withdraw the product from its shelves.

Zara wants you to believe that it’s all just a terrible misunderstanding. Inspiration is borderless and because so much African design right now is on trend, it might try to argue the mimicry was quite by accident.

A MaXhosa by Laduma design.

It issued a statement on Wednesday: “Inditex, the holding company of Zara has the utmost respect for individual creativity and takes all claims concerning third party intellectual rights very seriously. As a preventative action, the process to immediately remove this item both from out stores and online was activated at the moment this situation was brought to our attention. The company has already started an internal investigation and will be in contact with MaXhosa’s representatives to clarify and resolve the situation as swiftly as possible.”

Its reminiscent of the December 2012 scandal when Woolworths was accused of copying the intellectual property of Balgowan-based softdrinks maker Frankies. 

CEO Mike Schmidt had pitched his product to Woolworths and was rejected. Weeks later he found the retailer was carrying its own range which bore and strong resemblance to the entrepreneurs’ product. He shamed the retailer into withdrawing its line of drinks which the firm said at the time was answering a market need. 

That range, which Woolworths at the time claimed was critical in terms of customer service and differentiation, has not been replaced.

Frankies chose to fight and as a consequence is unlikely to ever get its range on the shelves at Woolworths. 

Another small luxury food manufacturer contacted me at the same time as the Frankies saga expressing the opinion that this was the stratagem of large retailers worldwide: it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission. And in many cases small producers, rather than antagonise a large retailer, avoid conflict in the hope of being granted shelf space one day.

How did he know? I asked. 

In the creation of one of the group’s products, they’d made a spelling mistake on the label and rather than face the expense of recalling batches they decided to live with the typo. 

Not long after, Woolworths brought out a very similar product with a label misspelling precisely the same word.

Coincidence? He didn’t think so, but rather than go public and pick a fight he chose to have his products on store shelves and has done rather well in the period since.

For MaXhosa by Laduma, the best the small firm could do was make a fuss and shame the global giant into doing the right thing.

It would be nice if the firm could ask Ngoxolo to design a bespoke range. That’s unlikely to happen though.

Bruce Whitfield is a multi-platform award winning financial journalist and broadcaster.

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